What’s Up with Wolfsheim?

3 articles to explore Gatsby’s OG

Even though I’ve taught The Great Gatsby only twice, I have done quite a lot of writing about Fitzgerald’s many-layered masterpiece. If you pull down to The Great Gatsby on my Blog menu at the top of this page, you’ll find upwards of fourteen posts related to what is considered by many to be the “Great American Novel.”

However, you won’t find a post there — until today, that is — about Meyer Wolfsheim, Gatsby’s sinister gangster-friend who was rumored to have “fixed the 1919 World Series” and made Jay into a businessman simply because Wolfsheim knew he “could use him good.”

Amitabh Bachchan as Meyer Wolfsheim in Baz Luhrman's 2013 The Great Gatsby.
Amitabh Bachchan plays Meyer Wolfsheim in Baz Luhrman’s 2013 The Great Gatsby.

Although Wolfsheim only appears twice in the novel, the gangster is an important key to Gatsby’s identity. We meet Wolfsheim in Chapter 4 when Nick and Gatsby visit a “well-fanned Forty-second Street cellar.” (In Baz Luhrman’s 2013 film, the establishment is a barbershop with a hidden door that leads to a speak-easy.)

A painfully stereotypical portrayal

Over the following four pages in Chapter 4, Fitzgerald paints a portrait of Wolfsheim with brushstrokes that highlight a very common Jewish stereotype. He alludes to Wolfsheim’s nose and/or nostrils no fewer than six times in Chapter 4 and once in Chapter 9, the book’s final chapter.

Fitzgerald’s preoccupation with Wolfsheim’s nose always startles and embarrasses me as I read the text and discuss it with students. Sure, we can wrap our minds around other elements that illuminate Wolfsheim’s gangster character: the human molar cuff buttons; the thick accent revealed in “Oggsford” (Oxford) and “gonnegtion” (connection); the word “wolf” in his carnivorous name. However, Fitzgerald’s preoccupation with Wolfsheim’s nose seems out of line.

Maybe this bothers me more than it does my students simply because they don’t recognize the stereotype. Even though they have no doubt studied anti-Semitism in their history classes and know that it gained popularity in the years before and during the World Wars, students may not understand how certain physical attributes were most often caricaturized.

And that’s why I find it difficult to acknowledge, let alone explain, Fitzgerald’s focus on Wolfsheim’s nose. I feel that by acknowledging the “Jewish nose” stereotype that I may be — in some imprecise way — giving it credence. And that is exactly what I don’t want to do.

Am I perpetuating the stereotype by revealing it?

So, my students and I stop during or after our reading of the Wolfsheim scenes and talk about them. I stumble through a quick explanation of the anti-Jewish propaganda that was prevalent in the early 1900s, and how the messaging usually included large hook-shaped noses, small eyes (yes, Fitzgerald worked that one in, too), dark hair, and others.

We question why Fitzgerald would have written in this manner. And because we’re in school and bells ring every fifty minutes, we usually arrive at some sort of resolution where we agree that the book’s story is one hundred years old. Sensibilities have changed. And sure enough, the bell rings, and that’s that.

As a teacher, this rush to move on means I don’t have the luxury of delving deeper during the school year to root out a text’s complications… for students or for myself.

And I feel guilty about that.

I feel guilty that I don’t have as much knowledge about Fitzgerald, Wolfsheim, and the 1920s as I should to provide a path for my students through this particular aspect of the novel.

But then summer comes, and I suddenly do have that luxury to ponder questions such as:

  • What do teachers do when an author’s direct characterization reeks of stereotype and racism?
  • What was Fitzgerald’s point?
  • What was he saying about 1920s America?
  • For that matter, what was he not saying about 1920s America?
  • Was Wolfsheim’s description merely evidence of Fitzgerald’s personal prejudices?
  • And so many others!

So, because it’s summer, and because I enjoy thinking about The Great Gatsby no matter the season, I’ve decided to share three articles to shed some light on the mysterious Meyer Wolfsheim and his function in the novel.

I’ve provided a few notes about each article below, including:

  • The author’s argument or thesis
  • The main take-aways
  • What this article may add to your class’ analysis of Wolfsheim

I don’t offer opinion on the views of the various authors I’ve provided. I’m merely including them here as resources if you, like me, need more information about Meyer Wolfsheim and Fitzgerald’s portrayal of this complex character.

So, if you’re familiar with the “Wolfsheim struggle bus” and the questions my students and I have had about the gangster’s portrayal, then these articles may find a place in your Gatsby lessons.

Check out these three articles:

1. “Fitzgerald and the Jews” by Arthur Krystal

Fitzgerald and the Jews article by Arthur Krystal
Screenshot of “Fitzgerald and the Jews” by Arthur Krystal, published in The New Yorker.

This article first appeared in The New Yorker magazine on July 20, 2015. You can read it here.

Krystal’s Argument: This is a mouthful, but bear with me. I’ve boldfaced what I think is the key part of this statement. “The caricatures of Jews propagated by the Dreyfus Affair around the turn of the century and by the German press in the nineteen-thirties were driven by pure hatred; Fitzgerald was simply reiterating a familiar physiognomic code. He was provincial but not malicious, and made similar attributions about various nationalities, including the Irish.”

Main take-aways from this article:

  • Many people assume Fitzgerald was anti-Semitic based on his characterization of Wolfsheim. Krystal affirms that suspicion based in part on a 1921 personal letter that contains damning language. But Krystal also notes that, in his later years at least, Fitzgerald surrounded himself with a Jewish romantic partner (Sheila Graham), a Jewish secretary (Francis Kroll Ring), and various Jewish business associates (he worked in Hollywood in his later years). Even Monroe Stahr, the main character of his final novel, the unfinished The Last Tycoon, is Jewish. Krystal writes, “Although Stahr’s Jewishness is occasionally alluded to, it’s never disparaged.”
  • Other details in the article paint a balanced discussion of why Fitzgerald would have written such a controversial portrait of a Jewish gangster in The Great Gatsby. Krystal writes, “According to Kroll, he (Fitzgerald) was stung by accusations of anti-Semitism, and maintained that Wolfsheim ‘fulfilled a function in the story and had nothing to do with race or religion.'” Krystal explains that many notorious gangsters of the time were Jewish, including gambler Arnold Rothstein, on whom Wolfsheim is based. “It was perfectly reasonable to make a mobster Jewish,” Krystal adds.

What this article may add to your class’ analysis of Wolfsheim:

  • The article does contain racist statements attributed to Fitzgerald, so beware of that for your class.
  • Use this piece to understand why Fitzgerald may have chosen a Jewish character as a gangster and Gatsby’s business partner.
  • Also use it to discuss how Fitzgerald was a product of the Jazz Age. What events mentioned in the article might have influenced Fitzgerald’s portrayal of Wolfsheim?

2. “Ethnicity in The Great Gatsby” by Peter Gregg Slater

Twentieth Century Literature published this piece in 1973 by Peter Gregg Slater, a historian of American intellectual and cultural history.

Access this article on JSTOR, where you can read online without a paid subscription. Here’s a link to the article on JSTOR.

Slater’s Argument: “The purpose of this essay is to demonstrate that in Fitzgerald’s masterpiece of the 1920’s, The Great Gatsby, a heightened awareness of ethnic differences does constitute a significant element in the book.” The author adds that by reading the book through a “consciousness of ethnicity” lens, readers will better relate the novel to the 1920s.

Main take-aways from this article:

  • The author acknowledges that Fitzgerald is thought of as a reporter with his “literary accounts of the American 1920s.”
  • While the article discusses the racism of Tom Buchanan and illuminates how Fitzgerald chose to have other characters in the novel respond to Tom, Slater argues that “the image of Wolfsheim is the most complex development of ethnicity in The Great Gatsby.” We must also remember that the reader’s perception of Wolfsheim is conveyed through the eyes of by Nick Carraway.
  • Gatsby’s identity is inextricably tied to Wolfsheim’s. Moreover, could we consider Wolfsheim as the third father figure to Gatsby, after Henry Gatz and Dan Cody? After all, when Nick asks in Chapter 9 if Wolfsheim started him in business, Wolfsheim responds, “Start him! I made him… I raised him up out of nothing.”

What this article may add to your class’ analysis of Wolfsheim:

  • Fitzgerald paints Wolfsheim to be both “exotic” and “sinister.” Those are compelling words that would make a great vocabulary addition.
  • Discuss whether Wolfsheim might represent some aspect of America’s growing consciousness of ethnicity. Does the inclusion of Wolfsheim mirror the struggles of a nation coming to grips with its melting pot persona?
  • Compare Dan Cody to Meyer Wolfsheim. Slater writes, “Both Cody and Wolfsheim were instrumental in Gatsby’s ascent, but there the resemblance ends.” For example, Gatsby loses his fortune from Cody but swindles it all back with Wolfsheim. Also, he describes Cody as “hyper-American” and Wolfsheim as “exotic.”

3. “How the Great Gatsby Could Afford Those Great Parties” by Ezra Klein

Screenshot of “How the Great Gatsby could afford those great parties,” written by Ezra Klein in The Washington Post.

In this Washington Post article (click here) writer Ezra Klein responds to an article published five days earlier by New York magazine‘s Kevin Roose titled Was the Great Gatsby Broke?”

Klein’s Argument: Meyer Wolfsheim needed Jay Gatsby. In his article, Roose quite methodically analyzes Gatsby’s income and expenses to determine if the financial side of Gatsby’s bootlegging business adds up. Roose writes, “Far from being rich beyond all measure, he (Gatsby) may have been putting himself at risk by outspending his means.” In “How the Great Gatsby Could Afford Those Great Parties,” Klein writes, “But Roose’s analysis leaves something — or, more to the point, someone — out: Meyer Wolfsheim, the gangster bankrolling Gatsby.”

Main take-aways from this article:

  • Wolfsheim uses Gatsby for his networking potential into the White-Anglo-Saxon-Protestant (WASP) world. “The blond, apparently well-bred Gatsby could go where Meyer couldn’t, slapping backs and throwing parties and calling people ‘old sport,'” writes Klein.
  • Gatsby is simply the conduit that allows Wolfsheim to develop his bond scam, which is the crucial piece of gossip Tom uses to break Gatsby at the Plaza Hotel confrontation. Klein even speculates that all the parties and the glamorous mansion were as much about attracting business for Wolfsheim as they were about attracting Daisy to Gatsby.

What this article may add to your class’ analysis of Wolfsheim:

  • Discuss whether Gatsby, his mansion, and his parties were “business expenses” for Wolfsheim.
  • Discuss how Gatsby’s and Wolfsheim’s ethnic differences enhance their relationship.

As you can see, there is SO MUCH to know and ponder about Meyer Wolfsheim. Despite appearing in the novel only twice, Wolfsheim’s influence seems increasingly important. Heck, I’ve read The Great Gatsby numerous times now and Fitzgerald’s OG is just now starting to become clarified in my mind.

It’s my hope that this post will help you dig deeper into The Great Gatsby, especially as it relates to Meyer Wolfsheim who — due to Fitzgerald’s admittedly stereotypical portrayal — has always given me pause.

How do you handle Wolfsheim? Reply with a comment below or message me using my Contact page. I would love to hear from you.

Side note, but an important one: I will be leaving the public high school classroom next year, and will be teaching literature and writing as an adjunct instructor at a private local (yay! no more one-hour commute!) university. I plan to continue posting about the teaching of literature and writing. I love teaching and love making it memorable!

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Works Cited Slater, Peter Gregg. “Ethnicity in The Great Gatsby.” Twentieth Century Literature, vol. 19, no. 1, 1973, pp. 53–62. JSTOR, https://doi.org/10.2307/440797. Accessed 17 Jun. 2022.

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Published by Marilyn Yung

Writes | Teaches | Not sure where one ends and the other begins.

4 thoughts on “What’s Up with Wolfsheim?

  1. I really try not to make judgements on an author’s viewpoint of individuals and peoples based on a modern, politically correct lens. I think we need to remember (for example) that just a few years before the depiction of Gatsby, black people were held in slavery. Fitzgerald alludes to “modish Negroes” riding in a car when describing a trip across a bridge. Drawing a comparison to the polished wealth of his set compared to the display of conspicuous consumption exercised by the other race, Nick’s crowd probably saw themselves as quite enlightened comparitively and people reading the book might have marveled at the “open minds” of the moneyed, hedonistic set. The relationship between the reader and the author forms a distinct layer of tone- as Gatsby is lured into less than moral circumstances in his quest for Daisy, we are lured into a somewhat moral ambivalence towards ethnicities and gender roles by living the period through Nick’s eyes. For example, Daisy hoping that her daughter would turn out to be a “little fool” is going to sound appalling to my 10 year old granddaughter who has been raised to be confident, smart and assertive. I first heard the Jewish “nose” trope (among many other things) through my mother in the 1960s, and she was definitely not an antisemite. Now, in the 21st century, I don’t use that stereotype in my language because it is a potentially hurtful thing to do. Regardless, we all are doing things today that people will decry tomorrow. Literature is a snapshot of the attitudes of a time and place in history. I would hate to wish it photoshopped.

    1. Thanks for commenting! Your statement, “The relationship between the reader and the author forms a distinct layer of tone- as Gatsby is lured into less than moral circumstances in his quest for Daisy, we are lured into a somewhat moral ambivalence towards ethnicities and gender roles by living the period through Nick’s eyes” would make an amazing discussion question regarding author’s tone in the classroom. Thanks for that! Also, I ‘m right with you on another point. Nick did indeed see himself as quite enlightened when it came to matters of race… he alludes to Tom’s pro-Stoddard/Goddard, white supremacist views, as “stale ideas.” Fitz also shows Daisy poking fun at Tom’s outdated racism with her “We’ve got to beat them (these other races) down,” that she whispers with a wink. She keeps at it with “Tom’s getting very profound… He reads deep books with long words in them.” Tom is definitely made to look the fool in this case. Speaking of fools, Daisy isn’t one. I see it like this: She knows all too well the pain involved with being “in the know” as she has always been aware of Tom’s infidelities… starting with the fling with the chambermaid in Santa Barbara after their honeymoon. Not knowing about a husband’s infidelities, or being “a little fool,” probably sounds like a positive thing for her daughter. Literature does indeed show us how things were… and how we can use it to inform our present and future. Thanks again for commenting… it was fun to get back into Ch. 1!

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